Aziz Ansari gets serious in Live At Madison Square Garden, his new Netflix special, which debuts on March 6. His persona and delivery are the same as always—he’s still an excited, enthusiastic supporter of pop culture and creature comforts—but time hardens a person. Priorities change. Ansari, now in his early thirties, has more important things to talk about, like factory farming, misogyny, internet cruelty, and how technology has destroyed our ability to communicate. When he brings up his family now, it’s not to make fun of the weird USA Network shows they watch—it’s about how brutal the immigrant experience can be, especially in a state like South Carolina.
Yes, Aziz gets political in the wrestling mecca of the northeast. (You might know it better as the home of the Knicks.) He does so without explicitly dealing with partisan issues, though, never framing anything as conservative or liberal, and never mentioning any specific policies or politicians. He’s clearly on the left side of the spectrum, but he’s not about to turn into his stand-up into The Daily Show or Mark Russell banging away at his piano.
This new, more serious edge is well-timed. Ansari’s been one of the best active stand-ups for years now, and between his act and his role as Tom Haverford on Parks and Recreation he’s developed a well-established identity as a bit of a modern day fop. His stand-up persona wasn’t ever as gleefully superficial as his Haverford character, but he still dealt with the shallowness of our pop culture saturated society from the viewpoint of an entertainment obsessed insider. He makes similar observations in Live At Madison Square Garden, but he’s more pointed in talking about how our reliance on technology, entertainment and instant self-gratification has turned us into bad people. This more direct approach provides a new depth to his work and foregrounds the mischievous implications that have always stirred underneath his exterior.
What’s brilliant about the special is that Ansari deals with these serious issues while maintaining his adorable puppy dog enthusiasm. He’s maybe the only stand-up who could jump effortlessly from riffing on how terrible conditions are at chicken farms to a spot-on Ja Rule impersonation, and then somehow hilariously combine the two. That energy keeps the special from ever seeming too dark or sad, and also endears Ansari to you as deeply as ever. I’m already inclined to agree with his viewpoint on every issue he jokes about, but even if I didn’t I don’t think I’d get angry or offended. He’s just that damn ingratiating.
Ansari reveals a vital new strength in this special. He can comfortably broach serious, depressing issues and cut right to the heart of society’s ills without ever growing strident. He retains his effortless charisma and youthful exuberance even when talking about how horrible men are to women all of the time. He’s a more fully rounded comic now, a wiser and braver performer whose material now matches his stature, and one who has grown comfortably into his role near the top of the current stand-up hierarchy.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy section. Follow him on Twitter @grmartin.